Fun, frolic, fractures

Extremes: Members of Britain's Dangerous Sports Club take a whimsical approach to risking life and limb.

June 10, 2000|By Bill Glauber | Bill Glauber,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

OXFORD, England - Jet-lagged, sun-soaked and barely recovered from a "vine jumping" expedition in the South Pacific, David Kirke, co-founder and lead prankster of the Dangerous Sports Club, ponders what to do with "those boys from Somerset."

While he was away, those boys, David Aitkenhead and Richard Wicks, persuaded fellow club member Stella Young to dress in body armor, helmet and Coldstream Guards jacket, lie in mud, and get hooked to a wooden catapult that hurled her 100 feet across a field and into a net at 50 miles per hour.

The flight wasn't a problem. But they'll need to work a bit on the landing.

Young landed in the net but bounced out again, missed a pile of tires and hit the ground, breaking her pelvis, an excruciating moment witnessed by a German television crew.

Kirke says his advice to the "boys" will be simple: "Just try it a bit differently, next time."

This is the wild, wacky and slightly demented world of the Dangerous Sports Club.

If you dare it, they will do it - with style.

These are the people who invented bungee jumping in formal dress. They've crossed the English Channel in flying kangaroos and bobbing septic tanks. They've skied down a mountain in St. Moritz while playing Chopin on a grand piano.

Hang gliding off Mount Olympus in Greece? Been there.

Running with the bulls in Pamplona, Spain? Done that. On skateboards.

To compare the antics of the Dangerous Sports Club to, say, the made-for-television X Games is like analyzing the differences between opera and rap. The X Games are all about attitude, peroxide and making sure to get a plug in for the sponsor while looking good for the cameras.

The DSC is something altogether different, a champagne-drenched throwback, or, as one long-time follower puts it, "Now you see how the English behave when they leave school."

"We're an old-fashioned Victorian sporting club dealing with new technology," Kirke says.

The group claims 74 members from Los Angeles to Shanghai, with Kirke occupying the role he calls "the benevolent spider at the center of the web."

By all outward appearances, Kirke is a mild-mannered, middle-aged man with a white beard, soft voice and expanded waistline.

"Between the two ears, I'm 22," he says. "I'm 54, I think. I'm a fully paid-up member of the Peter Pan Generation."

Ask this part-time lecturer and full-time adventurer what his occupation is, and he thinks for a moment and says, "How about free-lance romantic?"

You don't necessarily interview Kirke; you enter his world. Begin with a glass of sparkling wine at noon, and head to a nearby cafM-i for a long, leisurely lunch that opens with iced sherry and moves on to red and white wine.

Finish the afternoon back at his apartment, which looks a bit like a college dorm, piled with books, videos, topped off by a computer that sits in the middle of the living room.

On the television there's a video of the club's greatest hits. Kirke and friends together forever, on tape, diving off bridges, careening down snow and hang gliding.

"I've seen him do things that even I can't believe," says Patrick Gamble, who has filmed many of the club's most bizarre moments.

"David was once fired over a cliff in western Ireland. Even he looked scared. Some of the best action footage I've ever seen has been done by club members."

Sometimes, stuff goes wrong. Kirke says he has broken a leg, an arm and his back in accidents and has suffered eye damage. Still, he keeps going.

The thing is, what we now take as standard stuff - bungee jumping, hang gliding and other extreme sports - was actually pretty ground-breaking when, in the mid-1970s, Kirke got together with a handful of other Oxford students who apparently had too much time on their hands and too little sense in their heads.

Among the founders was Edward Hulton, who Kirke says arrived at Christ Church College, Oxford "with a better picture of Henry VIII than the college had itself."

The other charter member was Chris Baker, who Kirke says "was very good on hang gliding and bungee jumping. He came up with extremely good ideas and then disappeared."

Over the years, the club adopted a few mottoes, such as "More Audacity," and created an emblem, a silver wheelchair with a blood-red seat set against a black background. Kirke says club members use the symbol to poke fun at themselves, not at those who are physically challenged.

It's hard to pin down when the club began. But most point to a party held in 1978. Formal invitations were printed. `Tea. Rockall. Black tie."

Rockall happens to be an islet in the Atlantic.

"We got an Irish ketch, sailed out five days, wonderful time," Kirke says. "All the women we invited developed pressing engagements for tea parties. We had champagne and eggs. Dancing to the Beach Boys."

On April Fool's Day, 1979, the club went public with what is now considered by most to be the world's first bungee jump off the Clifton suspension bridge, outside Bristol.

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